Disagree Better – 2023 NGA Annual Meeting

“Whatever your issue is, I’m here to tell you we cannot solve that issue if we remain as divided as we are today. I believe this issue of toxic division, of unhealthy conflict, rises above all the other issues.”

Speaking at NGA’s Annual Meeting, NGA Chair Utah Governor Spencer Cox implored Americans to “Disagree Better.” That’s the name of the new Chair’s Initiative he will lead during his term as NGA Chair alongside 2023-2024 Vice Chair Colorado Governor Jared Polis.

The Disagree Better initiative will look at the problems of polarization, elevate the solutions that groups around the country are already implementing and feature Governors modeling what disagreeing better looks like. Through public debates, service projects, public service announcements and a variety of other tactics, Americans will see a more positive and optimistic way of working through our problems.

Noting that Governors are often recognized as “the last adults left in the room in politics,” Governor Cox invited his fellow Governors to lead by example in demonstrating “healthy disagreement.”

“There’s a permission structure in culture,” Governor Cox explained. “Politicians have been giving Americans permission to hate each other. It’s up to us to give Americans permission to care for each other again.”

“We can disagree without hating each other,” he continued. “We can look to build others instead of tearing each other down. There is power in proximity. One of the reasons the NGA works is because we spend time together. We get to know each other as human beings first and as politicians second. And we need more of that in our country today.”

Governor Cox has consulted with researchers at Stanford and Dartmouth universities to analyze the science behind reducing toxic polarization. Based on data identifying the most effective strategies, Governor Cox encouraged fellow policymakers to record an ad with a member of the opposing party – like the one he and Governor Polis recorded about improving conversations around the dinner table.

“We’re in public service to solve problems – especially tough ones,” Governor Polis stated during the session. “What could be more needed now than the difficult work of bridging this divide that our nation faces? It doesn’t mean you’ll always agree on every issue. But you can disagree without being disagreeable.”

In four convenings across the country over the next year, Governor Cox will coordinate with Governors and other leaders of both parties to model healthy debate. Utah First Lady Abby Cox will lead service projects at each convening to benefit local communities.  The research is clear that participating in service activities breaks down barriers, lifts up others and improves mental health – and service will be an important part of Disagree Better.

Governor Cox’s initiative will also put the Disagree Better principles to work on a real-world policy challenge: the longtime stalemate over immigration. In collaboration with the business community and other stakeholders, an NGA working group will seek consensus among Governors to identify common principles around immigration policy.

In a panel discussion held during the NGA Annual Meeting, Governor Cox invited leaders engaged in bridging the partisan divide to share their thoughts.

Moderator Mónica Guzmán, Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, kicked off the discussion by asking panelists to define the problem.

Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics International and the founder of Unite, identified the issue as “the erosion of trust” and “the rise of contempt as the problem-solving tool of choice.”

“We are kidding ourselves if we treat our opponent with contempt and claim to be about the people’s business,” Shriver continued. “We are no longer about the people’s business; we are no longer about solving problems. We are now about making points that aggrandize and feed our own addiction to safety and security but do nothing to solve the problems of the country.”

Yuval Levin, Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, commented: “The problem is not that we’ve forgotten how to agree; the problem is we’ve forgotten how to disagree. The forgetfulness is created by a political culture that encourages us to see the various institutions that we’re all a part of … not as [forums] to get things done together but as platforms for ourselves as individuals.”

“Rather than operating within the framework of a legislative institution in a way that brings differing sides together … a lot of people now use those institutions as a stage to stand on and build a personal following and brand … participating in the work of political expression rather than the work of governing,” Levin explained.

Building on Governor Cox’s remarks highlighting that the United States “was founded on profound disagreement, healthy disagreement,” the panelists stressed that their organizations do not seek to change partisan principles.

“We’re not here to change your mind about the issues,” Guzmán said of Braver Angels. “We’re here to get you to change your minds about each other – so that you can work on the issues.”

Shriver concurred, stating: “Don’t change your principles; add one: Treat people with dignity.” That’s the idea behind Unite’s “Dignity Index” – a tool created to analyze political speech and encourage leaders to choose language that expresses dignity instead of contempt.

Governor Cox encouraged voters to get engaged in the cause, as well, and hold public officials accountable: “When you’re in a townhall, ask your mayor or member of Congress ‘what is your stance on treating the other side with respect?’”

Wrapping up the discussion, Governor Cox acknowledged “we’re not going to change American politics and culture in one year” but urged citizens who want to make their country better to get involved:

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when? Are we going to continue to sleepwalk into the unthinkable? Or are we actually going to strive to make a difference?

“This is the issue of our day. This is it. And all of us have an opportunity to make a difference in a real way. What you post on Facebook and Twitter today impacts the power of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. They are watching us right now. They don’t believe our best days are ahead.

“We have an opportunity to do better.”

Watch the full panel discussion below, and learn more about the Disagree Better initiative, and upcoming bipartisan events, on the NGA website.